A Coffee Chat

A few years ago I ran into a mention of coffee in Bedford County, Pennsylvania during the Revolutionary War. Other than visiting the Williamsburg coffeehouse I knew little about the subject. Coffeehouses are not one of my “things”, but the cultures of the counties that are carved out of Bedford County are an interest of mine.
Phillip Dodderidge

In his memoirs Phillip Dodderidge recalls seeing things for the first time as a child of about 6 or 7 years old. After his mother died his father sent him away to stay with family. Along the way he stopped at the Bedford Tavern. This takes place during the Revolutionary War. I love this story because of his reactions to everything surrounding him. His tale is that of an innocent child leaving his home in what was then a backwoods area of western Pennsylvania. He gives us a glimpse of his first experiences with coffee in this excerpt from the memoirs.`

“A little cup stood in a bigger one with some brownish looking stuff in it which was neither milk homminy nor broth. what to do with these little cups and the little spoons belonging to them I could not tell but I was afraid to ask any thing concerning the use of them. It was in the time of the war and the company were giving accounts of catching whipping and hanging tories. The word jail frequently occurred. this word I had never heard before but I soon discovered and was much terrified at its meaning and supposed that we were in danger of the fate of the tories for I thought as we had come from the backwoods it was altogether likely that we must be tories too. For fear of being discovered I durst not utter a single word. I therefore watched attentively to see what the big folks would do with their little cups and spoons. I imitated them and found the taste of the coffee nauseous beyond any thing I ever had tasted in my life. I continued to drink as the rest of the company did with tears streaming from my eyes but when it was to end I was at a loss to know as the little cups were filled immediately after being emptied. This circumstance distressed me very much as I durst not say I had enough. Looking attentively at the grown persons I saw a man turn his cup bottom upwards and put his little spoon across it. I observed that after this his cup was not filled again. I followed his example and to my great satisfaction the result as to my cup was the same.”

Phillip Dodderidge​
Tom King's Coffee House

Coffee was something that doctors often prescribed as a curative. A Book of Physick, as well as other books on pharmaceuticals, list it as a cure to headaches, and at times as a miracle cure to all ailments. However, this is not the only reason coffee was being consumed in the time period. It was a popular drink throughout the world. By the time Revolution began coffee had become the preferred drink among those opposing England.

On the Arabian Peninsula coffee houses existed all the way back to the 16th century. They were often referred to as “Schools for the Wise”. As the drink spread across Europe it became a drink associated with socializing. Taverns in the 18th century were a meeting place for the community. They were often inn, coffeehouse and tavern all in one; the place gossip would be exchanged, bulletins would be posted, and the newspapers read. The atmosphere of intellectually stimulating discussion, and exchange of news, whether true or only rumor, brewed along with the coffee.

Coffeehouses were all over London. Over 2000 are on record as being there between the 17th and 18th century. They were also known as “Penny Universities”; for a penny you could buy a cup of coffee and participate in a good discussion about politics, religion or philosophy. While there were coffeehouses with female proprietors, they were focused on male patrons. This was exacerbated by some London coffeehouses allowing men to meet prostitutes on site prior to going elsewhere to spend time together.

In the 17th century coffeehouses began to appear in Colonial America. In Boston, Dorothy Jones received a license for a coffeehouse. She was allowed to sell coffee and cuchaletto, another word for chocolate. In New York there are records indicating that coffee is flavored with sugar or honey, and cinnamon.
By the time of the French and Indian War there were a few coffee houses in every major city, and it had become common for taverns to include coffee and hot chocolate on their menus.

Governor Francis Fauquier VA
Governor Francis Fauquier, Virginia

In the 1760s, as the British began to tax imports including tea, coffee became an even more popular drink. Private sellers sold coffee for home consumption. Benjamin Franklin advertised in his paper “Very good coffee sold by the Printer”. The printer being Benjamin Franklin. In 1765 Governor Francis Fauquier of Virginia was attacked by a mob over the Stamp Act. He had been at “the Coffeehouse, in the porch of which I had seated myself with many of the council” when it occurred.

In many cities coffee houses began to form social circles based on political affiliations. Tories, loyal supporters of the king, were more likely to patronize one, while the Patriots, supporters of the Revolution, were more likely to be at others. In Boston, a very popular coffeehouse called the Green Dragon was also known as the “headquarters of the Revolution.” Revolutionaries John Adams, James Otis, Paul Revere, and others had their meetings for the Ways and Means Committee there and sewed the seeds of a Revolution. During the Revolution coffeehouse and newspaper owner, James Rivington of New York City, used his connections to spy for George Washington and the Culpepper Ring.

The Boston Tea Party made coffee and cocoa drinking almost a patriotic duty. On July 6 of 1774 John Adams shared an anecdote with his wife. He had asked one evening for a cup of tea at the place he was dining. The response he received was that they could give him coffee, but tea would not be served in their establishment. He went on to say, “Accordingly I have drank coffee every afternoon since, and have borne it very well…” and “…Tea must be universally renounced. I must be weaned, and the sooner, the better.” He seemed to have stuck to this. Hamilton once remarked upon Adams drinking habits that when he drank anything other than coffee he became “silly and vaporing.”

During the war coffee could also be found with the troops. Sarah Osborn followed the Army supporting her husband’s unit, the 3rd New York Regiment, from 1780 to 1783. She recalled bringing her husband and the other men beef, bread and coffee while they were in the entrenchments at the Battle of Yorktown.

In 1777 what is sometimes referred to as the Coffee Party occurred. Abigail Adams writes to her husband concerning this event.

July 31, 1777 “I have nothing new to entertain you with, unless it is a new set of New Set of Nobility which have lately taken the Lead in Boston. You must know that there is a great Scarcity of Sugar and Coffe, articles which the Female part of the State are very loth to give up, expecially whilst they consider the Scarcity occasiond by the merchants having secreted a large Quantity. There has been much rout and Noise in the Town for several weeks. Some Stores had been opend by a number of people and the Coffe and Sugar carried into the Market and dealt out by pounds. It was rumourd that an eminent, wealthy, stingy Merchant (who is a Batchelor) had a Hogshead of Coffe in his Store which he refused to sell to the committee under 6 shillings per pound. A Number of Females some say a hundred, some say more assembled with a cart and trucks, marchd down to the Ware House and demanded the keys, which he refused to deliver, upon which one of them seazd him by his Neck and tossd him into the cart. Upon his finding no Quarter he deliverd the keys, when they tipd up the cart and dischargd him, then opend the Warehouse, Hoisted out the Coffe themselves, put it into the trucks and drove off.It was reported that he had a Spanking among them, but this I believe was not true. A large concourse of Men stood amazd silent Spectators of the whole transaction.”

Abigail Adams

This was not in response to a political situation. Thomas Boylston, a Patriot and merchant had tried to keep coffee and sugar off the market, therefor causing the price to raise. The women of Boston needed their coffee and attacked him demanding he charge a reasonable price.

“Yesterday we had a high Scene in this town. In the Morning a Number of Women waited on Mr. Boyleston. They told him that they kept Little shops to sell Necessarys for Poor People, they understood that he had Coffee to sell and if he would sell it at a reasonable price they would take it of him. He gave them a verry short answer and they Left him, about 3 o Clock in the afternoon a Number of Women mostly from the North part of the town Assembled under the direction of one Mrs. Colter. They were not your Maggys but reputable Clean drest Women Some of them with Silk gownes on. They went to Boylestons Warehouse where they found him. They Insisted on having his Coffee at their price. He refused. They without Ceremony put him into a Cart they having one at hand and drove him some way up the Wharf. He found it Impossible to withstand, gave them his Keys, they took one Cask and Carried it off Intending to pay him for it. Poor Boyleston was never so Swetted since he was born. He was verry roughly handled. I am sorry for the Occasion but I cant say I am sorry that he has met with a rebuff.—We had yesterday a Legal town Meeting. The town agreed to raise by Subscription £8000.0 La[wful] Money to put into the hands of a Committee to purchase articles for the Inhabitants to deliver them to the Hucksters at the price they cost, they to sell them to the Inhabitants at a Moderate proffit. I hope this method will be of Service”

John Scollay

Ye Olde Coffeehouse was the popular meeting place for the patriots of Philadelphia for many years. It had been the place the governor and his men had sat and sipped coffee together and held discussions. It was such a popular place that activities were held in front of it. A Mayday celebration was held outside every year, full of revelry and joy. It was also a place of dehumanization and pain when prior to the Revolution indentured servants and slaves were sold on a platform in the street in front of the coffeehouse.

When the Stamp Act was put in place it was where the paper announcing the act was burned in protest. During the occupation of Philadelphia the coffeehouse was seized and became a Tory hot spot. Its owner, Colonel Bradford, being off serving the cause of the Patriots, had no say in the matter. After the British left Philadelphia it never regained its patrons.

The City Tavern, which was modeled after London coffeehouses, became well known for the politics discussed within its walls. A large contingent of men joined together there to discuss their opposition to the Boston Port Bill of 1774. In 1776 Tories threatened to tear it down when a banquet was to be held in honor of Martha Washington. She politely declined the banquet and the issues were resolved. George Washington met with Lafayette at the City Tavern in 1777. Throughout their lives Washington, Jefferson and Hamilton all visited City Tavern frequently. In the 19th century it was destroyed but was rebuilt for the Bicentennial and now caters to customers with 18th century culture and cuisine.

During the Revolution, from the Eastern Seaboard to the Appalachians, coffee brought us together and still does. The next time you are sitting at your local coffee shop and enjoying your paper realize that this is not a modern thing. The coffeehouse smells and chatter are part of our identity as a people. 

Notes and Sources

These are what I had in my notes, I have more, just not time to grab them all up right now. I will share when needed.

  • ALCOTT, WILLIAM ALEXANDER. Tea and coffee. Boston, 1839.
  • ANDREWS, A. Coffee houses and their clubs in the 18th century. Colburn’s New Monthly Magazine.
  • AUBRY-LE-COMTE. Culture et production du café dans les colonies. Revue Mar. et Col., Oct., 1865.
  • BEUGLESS, J.D. Coffee in its home. Overland Monthly, II.
  • BUC’HOZ, P.J. Dissertation sur le café Paris, 1787.
  • CARGILL, AMANDA What did the founding fathers eat and drink as they started a Revolution. Smithsonian.com, 2018
  • DE VERE, M.S. Culture and use of coffee. Harper’s Magazine.
  • ELLIS, JOHN. An historical account of coffee. London, 1774.
  • HILL, E. Coffee and coffee houses. Gentleman’s Magazine, n. s.
  • HOWERTH, I.W. Coffee house as a rival of the saloon. American Magazine of Civics.
  • JAMES, ROBERT. Treatise on tobacco, tea, coffee and chocolate. London, 1745.
  • MILHON. Dissertation sur le caffeyer. Montpellier, 1746.
  • STEVENS, J.A. Coffee houses of old New York. Harper’s Magazine.
  • Ukers, William H. All About Coffee. The Tea and Coffee Trade Journal Company, 1922.
  • WILLIAM GERVAISE CALRENCE-SMITH, STEVEN TOPIK, The Global Coffee Economy in Africa, Asia, and Latin America, 1500-1989 (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2003).
  • A Book of Physick. London, 1710
  • An Essay on Truth. Western Monthly Magazine, Nov 1835.
  • Coffee Houses of old New York. The Tea and Coffee Trade Journal, 1920.
  • Coffee Houses of old Philadelphia. The Tea and Coffee Trade Journal, 1920.
  • Sarah Osbourn (Benjamin) Pension Papers.
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